San Antonio Spurs 106, Minnesota Timberwolves 88: Defense and pace carry the day

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AT&T CENTER—Frustrated by several dismal offensive performances, having shot 14-0f-41 with 14 turnovers in the San Antonio Spurs prior three contests, Tim Duncan made sure to share his pain with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

If he was going to struggle to score, so were they, no matter how many blocks it took.

“They just kept coming at me,” Duncan said when asked how he managed to accumulate seven blocks. “I’m just trying to bring some energy and get a rhythm back. I’ve been in a slump lately and I’m trying to fight my way out of it.”

Rhythm is something the Spurs offense has lacked in recent games, the team failing to generate pace or protect the ball in games against the Knicks, Lakers, and Grizzlies. It’s difficult to determine whether Duncan’s problems are a symptom or cause of the Spurs offensive malaise, though in truth it’s probably a little bit of both.

For a night the solution was simple. In their 106-88 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves the San Antonio Spurs dusted off an old but familiar formula, generating points from their defense until their offense could find its lost rhythm.

Duncan had five blocks in the first quarter, two directly leading to fast break layups. Throughout the first half Duncan’s defense ignited the Spurs transition game and secondary breaks, punctuated by a perfectly place full court outlet pass to Patty Mills for a layup in the second quarter.

“He’s been the base of what we’ve done defensively for 16 years so I don’t think it was a huge surprise,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “It’s kind of neat that it was seven but he does that every night. He tries to do the best he can, guarding, blocking shots, protecting the rim for us. He’s been doing it a long time and tonight he got a few more blocks than usual.”

The Spurs combined Duncan’s defense and some brilliant performances from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (12 points, five assists in 12 minutes before leaving the game with a strained left hamstring) to 55 first half points on 56.8 percent shooting despite continuing turnover problems and periodic stagnation.

The Timberwolves scored 50 first half points of their own, mostly on the strength of extra shots and possessions the Spurs provided in the way of turnovers, offensive rebounds, and fouls.

For a moment the third quarter the Spurs appeared set to follow their recent downward trend. A missed contested jumper from Duncan and a turnover from Danny Green prompted Popovich to call for a quick timeout and tirade.

From there the Spurs offensive engine appeared to show sparks of life, albeit in more of a sputter than purr. Boris Diaw, starting the third quarter for a foul-stricken Tiago Splitter, showed a nice floor game cutting into open space and quickly reversing the ball from side to side.

With Parker briefly caught in the corner early in the third quarter, Diaw cut to the basket to receive a pass and quickly dumped the ball to Kawhi Leonard, who swooped in for the dunk.

By the beginning of the fourth quarter Gary Neal was hitting jumpers, the ball was moving, and all the elements of the Spurs offense appeared to be in play, awaiting one final catalyst to get it firing on all cylinders. Popovich provided the final ignition with two quick technical fouls for lashing out at the referees.

“Any time a coach does that, you know what it means: Go out there and play harder, go out there and get this game, even if he’s not on the sideline,” Stephen Jackson said. “Every player loves a coach who goes to bat for him. You can’t get better than the way Pop does it.”

The Spurs energy appeared to increase tenfold, their offense freed to dunk and hit pull-up jumper in transition to their hearts content. A 9-0 run following Popovich’s ejection put the game away and gave the Spurs something to build off of.

“We finally found a group that would move the basketball instead of standing,” Popovich said. “We actually changed sides of the court and moved the ball and moved the defense, and then Gary made some shots. That was nice. When you score, it’s a little easier to play defense at the other end instead of chasing everybody all the time.”

A few more notes from the Spurs win over the Timberwolves:

  • Patty Mills struggled from the field tonight–“He couldn’t find the rim. Well, he found the rim, he just couldn’t find the net,” Popovich joked after the game–but his energy, especially on the defensive end, set a pace the Spurs have lacked recently. He was a difference maker.
  • Two potential nicknames tossed around tonight. The first is The Condor, a name given to Kawhi Leonard from the Express-News’ Dan McCarney for his tendency to swoop in for a dunk or rebound. The second is”All or Nothing,” which I’ve taken to calling Danny Green after the Texas Lottery’s new game and Green’s feast or famine offensive nights (0-4 against Minnesota).
  • Manu Ginobili will be evaluated today, and we’ll update you as soon as possible. Some of the more worrisome injuries are those that occur with little to no contact, which was the case when Ginobili went down. After the game Stephen Jackson expressed some small relief that it was a strain instead of a pull, noting quicker recovery time from such injuries.
  • At least twice during the game the Spurs ran the alley-oop play once designated for Richard Jefferson. Tony Parker never made the pass, but it’s something to watch out for in the next few games.
  • Asked before the game what he remembered about Tony Parker during his time here that might suggest the player he is today, former Spurs and current Timberwolves coach Terry Porter had this to say:”I remember seeing the back of his jersey in practice many times as he flew by me. He was so explosive and quick with the ball. That’s when I knew the NBA had changed.”
  • http://twitter.com/SpursBorg SpursBorg

    I like Kawhi’s nickname used on his now defunct twitter account https://mobile.twitter.com/TheBig_Island. The Big Island or maybe Kawhi Island (reminiscent of Revis Island used for Jets CB Darrelle Revis.)

  • Graham

    I’d save Kawhi Island for when he establishes a rep as a top tier Defender, but that’s easily my favorite of the bunch.

  • DorieStreet

    Except for the first game vs. the Bucks, the Spurs are averaging 17 turnovers a game for the month of January- 6 games, 101 giveaways—and the veterans are the ones mostly responsible.

  • merkin

    Jesse, Tony did make the pass on that alley-oop, once designated for RJ, but the defense broke it up.

    I propose Manu never play against the T-Wolves again…last yr. the hand this yr. the hammy.

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